Putting Wheat in Its Place, Or Why the Green Revolution Wasn't Quite What It's Made Out to Be

Narratives that present the Green Revolution as necessary and successful ignore the context that it was brought around in and the fact that it did not lead to a food-secure India.

Growing wheat. Credit: Nupur Das Gupta/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Growing wheat. Credit: Nupur Das Gupta/Flickr CC BY 2.0

This article is in response to Gopi Rajagopal’s piece ‘The Stories of Ehrlich, Borlaug and the Green Revolution‘ published by The Wire on October 13, 2016.

The article by Gopi Rajagopal (‘The Stories of Ehrlich, Borlaug and the Green Revolution’, October 13, 2016) uses a selective narration of the history of how the Green Revolution came to pass, to uphold the popular narrative of why it was needed. The stark numbers that he presents – 10.4 million tonnes of wheat was “woefully inadequate to feed a population of over 500 million” in 1966 – shows the magnitude of the possible disaster that the coming of the Green Revolution seemed to have averted. The quotations from newspaper articles dating back to 1966 are used to add further authenticity to such claims.

It is not surprising that this is done. The Green Revolution only provided more wheat (later on high-yielding rice strains came from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, but this article is concerned only with wheat), so it is convenient to compare the amount of wheat grown in 1966 with the amount grown in the following decades – 20 million tonnes in 1970, 32 million tonnes in 1980 and a whopping 90 million tonnes in 2016, making India the second largest wheat producer in the world. This is a triumphant tale of success, of conquering the vicissitudes of nature and of the celebration of the man who brought it all to pass.

The glorification of wheat

Let me begin this critique by stating a couple of historical facts about wheat. First, a majority of Indians were not consumers of wheat in the decades prior to and following independence. Instead, India was a nation of rice eaters with the so-called coarse cereals (maize, millets) and gram coming a close second. In 1951, we grew 20.6 million tonnes of rice, 19 million tonnes of coarse cereals and gram, and 6.5 million tonnes of wheat. In 1965, we grew 39.3 million tonnes of rice, 31.1 million tonnes of coarse cereals and gram and 12.3 million tonnes of wheat.

Second, much of the wheat grown in the country was exported to Britain and Europe under colonial rule as raw material for cheap bread. The canal colonies of Punjab had been settled and converted into wheat-growing tracts by the British, along with areas in the Central Provinces and Berar. In fact, there was an excess production of wheat in the late 1920s and with the crash of purchasing power due to the worldwide Great Depression in 1929, wheat exporting nations, including India, participated in a series of urgent meetings to figure out how to dispose of the surplus and work towards reducing production!

Given this background, it is obvious that there wasn’t enough ‘wheat’ to feed 500 million people – it was never supposed to be the only thing that Indians ate. In fact, most statistics of the time did not even capture large portions of the diets of coastal Indians who ate fish and rural Indians, especially tribal groups, who relied on forest produce, not to mention oilseeds, pulses, meat, milk and the like, apart from cereals.

The story of Mexico is used to suggest that there was an inherent problem in terms of wheat productivity globally. But it is even more selective in its choice of historical actors. The problem of rust that was devastating Mexican wheat in the late 1930s and early 1940s is portrayed as an agricultural crisis for the entire country. Yet, the majority of Mexican farmers grew corn, which formed the staple Mexican diet. The crisis was faced by Mexican farmers who had just started growing wheat on a large scale in the Sonoran desert in the north of the country, thanks to the newly built Yaqui River Valley irrigation project.

In fact, the Yaqui Valley research station had been built in the region to support the needs of Mexican wheat growers, so that wheat output could be increased, not only for domestic consumption due to changing food preference in urban areas but more so for export. The problem of rust that was solved by Norman Borlaug helped Mexican farmers become exporters of wheat by 1958. It is not clear what is meant by self-sufficiency here since wheat was not a major component of the diet of a majority of Mexicans.

The missing twists and turns

Coming back to the Indian case – the narrative becomes even more selective in the listing of events that prompted the adoption of the “new agricultural strategy”, which set the Green Revolution in motion. The “several twists and turns in the tale” are as follows: India had been importing wheat from the US under Public Law 480 (PL480) since 1954, which gave developing countries the opportunity to purchase wheat, soyabean, edible oils and milk powder using their own currency, instead of dollars. This allowed countries to save their precious foreign exchange to buy industrial equipment and also to supply cheap food to their industrial labourers, thus facilitating a Lewisian transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. It allowed countries to obtain cheap food without extracting huge surpluses from their agrarian sectors to facilitate the transition. The US benefitted because it found a marketing outlet for its farmers who were over-producing these commodities and could not find enough markets globally.

The situation mutually benefitted India and the US until the India-Pakistan war in the summer of 1965, and the subsequent condemnation of US actions in Vietnam by India, which led to an immediate threat of withdrawal of the PL480 programme by the US. By this time, India’s urban labouring class had become dependent on PL480 wheat supplied to them through the ration shop system. India might have been able to weather the situation using domestic supplies, but there was a monsoon failure in 1965. This caused consternation and gave rise to the “ship to mouth” crisis since the US had pledged only one-fourth of the grain requested for 1965-66. It is important to note that the food crisis was not experienced by the entire nation but would have affected urban labourers alone, had the imports stopped. However, it was in the US’s favour to have international reports suggest conditions of a nation-wide famine so that it could then show its magnanimity by generously restarting PL480 imports, but under certain conditions.

The logjam was broken in November 1965 when C. Subramaniam travelled to the US and worked out a deal on behalf of the Lal Bahadur Shastri government, allowing private foreign investment in fertiliser plants and the import of fertiliser in exchange for the continuation of PL480 imports. This formed the backbone of the “new agricultural strategy”, which was inspired in part by a World Bank report that called for providing cost and price incentives to individual farmers in the form of seeds, pesticides, power implements, chemical fertilisers and water (in contrast to the earlier approach of the government focusing on community development programmes and land reforms), effectively, “guaranteeing profitability to the farmer.”

As should be evident from the narrative so far, the so-called miracle seeds are nowhere in the picture yet. In fact, India faced a double whammy with monsoon failure for the second time in parts of the country in 1966. However, the production in this year was marginally better than 1965, clocking 74 million tonnes of food grains. India imported its highest ever amount of wheat under PL480 that year – 10 million tonnes.

In a series of conjunctures which led M.S. Swaminathan to become a wheat breeder, brought him and others at IARI in touch with Norman Borlaug’s work, and led to the planting of the imported Mexican seed varieties in C. Subramaniam’s garden in Lutyen’s Delhi, the government approved the dissemination of the new seed varieties through the Intensive Agricultural District Program (IADP) in December 1965. Districts with sufficient access to water had been chosen and farmers who were “progressive”, i.e. typically upper caste and class, were provided with seeds in the winter of 1966. It is crucial to note here that the new seeds did not express their potential yield unless given adequate doses of chemical fertilisers and water, which the government also began to subsidise.

The new seeds fit very well into the new agricultural strategy, which was about incentivising individual farmers, and early adopters in the IADP regions were typically large farmers who had enough capital to pay for irrigation and purchase chemical fertilisers. They also received a guarantee that the government would purchase all their wheat to stock the Food Corporation of India godowns, at a minimum support price. The World Bank report had recognised the consequences of this policy, which would aggravate the inequality between large farmers and others, and between irrigated and rain-fed areas in the country.

Coming back to our narrative full of twists and turns, the miracle year of 1968 saw a recovery of the monsoon and a growth in food grain production from 74.2 million tonnes to 95.1 million tonnes. The increase of 20.9 million tonnes came as follows: 7.2 million tonnes was contributed by rice, 7.1 million tonnes by coarse cereals including gram and 5.2 million tonnes by wheat. In fact, good weather the world over had made it a bumper year of production, leading many commentators to talk of over-production once again. Some of the growth in wheat can be attributed to the new seeds of Borlaug but in case of the other crops, it was still local seed varieties that were being used. This was also the year following which the area under cultivation of coarse cereals starting going down, just as the wheat area started increasing.

As farmers in irrigated tracts realised that the government was providing input subsidies including the seeds to grow wheat and was buying back the crop under a guaranteed price, they started switching area from coarse cereals and gram to wheat (and rice). From a high of 55.6 million hectares in 1968, coarse cereals and gram lost acreage steadily, falling to 28 million hectares in 2006. Wheat’s success was built on the loss of other crops. So what has this meant for self-sufficiency?

What is self-sufficiency?

This brings me to the last loop in this story. About defining self-sufficiency and food security. What does it mean to say that, “India became self-sufficient in cereals in 1974”? Total food grain production in 1970-71 was 108.4 million tonnes, which fell in 1974 to 99.8 million tonnes, which was, in fact, a drought year. 1971 was the year when PL480 wheat imports were stopped, only to be restarted in 1972 again, continuing till 1975. All this while wheat production had been increasing, doubling to 24.7 million tonnes in 1972 and 28.8 million tonnes in 1975, but PL480 imports had continued. So what was the meaning of self-sufficiency?

Ironically, the PL480 programme was wound up not because India did not need to import wheat anymore. It was due to other geopolitical considerations of the US, which now saw self-sufficient nations feeding their restive populations as more amenable allies in the Cold War, especially if the US had arranged for the “self-sufficiency” in the first place (by providing the miracle seeds to them through the Rockefeller Foundation which had employed Borlaug and which organised for the transfer of genetic material).

Even more ironically, India did not need PL480 imports to provide enough food for its people to begin with. They served only a small constituency, the urban labouring class, and that too, due to conscious policy choices made in the 1950s. They had been started despite India having enough production in the 1950s (and a robustly growing agrarian economy that had been freed from the fetters of British rule).

From 1950 to 1965, Indian agriculture witnessed a surge in productivity across all crops. After half a century of 0% growth in agriculture (1900-1947), freedom from the shackles of punitive land revenue demands, demolition of the zamindari system, modest land reforms and repeal of taxes on digging wells and making improvements to the land had given a new lease of life to farmers. The production of major crops (except wheat) increased as much in the 1950-1965 period (in 15 years) as it did between 1965 and 1990 (in 25 years).

Ehrlich and the Malthusian juggernaut

It is suggested that even if we accept that India had enough food to feed its population in the 1960s, there was expected to be runaway population growth and without the Green Revolution, all those new mouths would have gone hungry. This is the classical Malthusian argument which, in simplified terms, says that food production grows linearly while population grows exponentially, eventually reaching a state of collapse – hence the doomsday predictions. The popular narrative of the Green Revolution challenges this hypothesis by arguing that food production can grow faster than the population thanks to high-yielding variety seeds.

Sadly, however, it does not question the very premise that ultimately survival on this planet is basically a race between food and population growth rates. As Amartya Sen’s now famous work has shown, food and population growth rates cannot be compared directly. Food availability has to be refracted through the element of price. There may be a mountain of food available, but access to food is only based on the entitlements that people have, to be able to exchange for food. This is one of the reasons, among others, that explains the bitter irony that Indians have remained food insecure despite all this bumper wheat production. Malnutrition levels in 2005 continued to remain horrific – three out of five children under five, or nearly 60%, were found to be chronically malnourished (two standard deviations below normal) by the National Family Health Survey. Moreover, the per capita availability of coarse cereals, gram and pulses had fallen by 42 kg per person per year, while the gains from wheat were only 28 kg per person per year between 1961 and 2006. This has resulted in the skewing of the nutrition basket.

Furthermore, Malthus’s theory assumes that population growth is an independent variable. Nothing can influence it except a dire reduction in food availability and economic distress that would lead millions to perish. However, there is not a shred of evidence to support his hypothesis, whether one looks at the history of populations in Europe and the West or India and the South. Population growth rates are dependent on birth rates and death rates. As death rates, especially infant mortality, have reduced, birth rates have also dropped, but with a time lag. The resulting bulge in population growth, before the reduced birth rates have kicked in, has been used to malign specific populations as being afflicted by runaway fertility.

However, this has ignored research which has shown that birth rates are influenced not only by food availability (and accessibility/affordability) but more so by rising incomes, occupational shifts, the availability of contraceptives and most important, women’s education and empowerment to be able to exercise reproductive choice, among other reasons. More insidiously, Malthusian theory has been used to justify coercive population control of specific populations, with terrible consequences – both India and China have dark histories of this and the latter has recently repealed its one-child policy after realising the distorted demographic consequences of the same.

Writing history

Fear mongers would do well to study a little bit of history. But as they say, history is written by the conquerors, or in this case, the ones who had the power to define the course of its narrative. Those who present calculations of food security in India on the basis of wheat production alone are either doing so out of surprising naivety or, more insidiously, from a desire to defend a certain triumphant version of history, where actors like Borlaug and Swaminathan are said to have saved a million lives.

This narrative of victory has also buoyed the boats of a host of interest groups, including chemical and seed companies, makers of power implements and mechanised equipment and, not to mention, the better-off farmers from irrigated tracts in the country who are, unfortunately, now rueing their fate. Monoculture farming promoted Green Revolution-style has destroyed the long term fertility of soils, chemicals have caused health problems and the technological treadmill has led to growing debt. All this, but India still doesn’t have food security, if one looks at nutritional outcomes of the population.

No surprise, since the story of wheat has not been put in its place – where it belongs – within the larger context of food production and consumption in India.

Richa Kumar is an assistant professor of sociology and policy studies at the department of humanities and social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. She is the author of Rethinking Revolutions: Soyabean, Choupals and the Changing Countryside in Central India (Oxford University Press 2016). She can be reached at [email protected]